– This article was published on Training Journal (May 2015)
It’s fashionable to be mentored and to be coached at the moment, and with good reason. Everything in business is achieved through people and the more you can do to improve performance, the faster you can remove inefficiency and make progress.
As a manager in the public sector, I was immediately given ten days of training. In the practical management of resources and people, training provides a solid grounding in the tools and best practice techniques of management. It explains why people skills are necessary, how to use them and avoid very many pitfalls. Those lessons have also taught me what is important when working with people and have stayed with me over the years.
The secret to being a good line manager is the ability to coach and to mentor. Often those words are used interchangeably and in my opinion, every member of the team needs both. Furthermore, it is very unusual to find one person who can be both.
Making a difference
A coach can help you to improve your own performance by making you focus on the problem in front of you. It is easy to become distracted and find reasons not to address your biggest challenge. It is also not uncommon to become so overwhelmed that the problem seems insurmountable. A coach will not generally offer a solution but will help to unlock the potential of the individual by supporting them in finding their own answers and then hold them to account for taking action.
This is central to the role of the line manager and is invaluable to the individual but more often than not this doesn’t happen regularly enough. Why? Perhaps because the team member doesn’t want to be seen to be asking their line manager for help. Similarly, the line manager is often too busy with their day job to take the time to focus on the individual. Consequently, one-to-one meetings become structured around giving specific updates and delegating specific business tasks.
Changing the emphasis wouldn’t necessarily take more time but would take the meeting in a completely different direction by simply asking “What is your biggest challenge right now?” and allowing the conversation to flow from there. The key skill then is to listen actively and to use questioning techniques to guide the subject to solve their own problem.
Mentoring versus coaching
Mentors, on the other hand, may use coaching skills regularly to help their mentee move forward but they offer much more than this. A mentor is generally a role model. A more senior person who is knowledgeable and experienced in the same discipline as you are and bears the battle scars to prove it. While a coach can be appointed a mentor should be chosen as the mentee should have a deep respect for their reputation and the experience they have to offer.
A mentor can understand the problem you are facing, can tell you if your plan is sound or doomed to fail and can even identify the risks and issues that you might face along the way. Unlike a coach, they are more likely to tell you what to do or not to do. The mentor should not be in the line management chain as this gives the advantage of keeping the relationship impartial and private.
To be a good mentor, among other things you should:
- Make time available to spend with your mentee. Don’t expect it to happen without planning and commitment.
- Be accessible. Be prompt and responsive with emails and phone calls when you are not scheduled to meet.
- Offer your network. Utilise your network of contacts to help the mentee make progress. Introductions are invaluable.
- Confront the brutal truth. Don’t sugar coat the solution. If the mentee is the problem then let them know it
- Be proactive. Have a game plan. What action do you need the mentee to take and by when? Always think ahead to the next step. What would you be doing next in their position?
Being a coach or a mentor is an incredibly important performance lever helping you to unlock staff potential at all levels. The two roles require very different skills and offer different types of support to the individual and while the results may not immediately benefit you personally giving something back in this way can be very rewarding.